|All Quiet on the Western Front
It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
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This statement, from the novel’s epigraph, sets up the intent of All Quiet on the Western Front: to discuss a generation of men who, though they survived the war physically, were destroyed by it mentally.
Chapter One opens with Paul Bäumer, the narrator, and the other members of the Second Company, a unit of German soldiers fighting during World War I, resting after being relieved from the front lines. They have spent the last two weeks at the front in constant battle. Out of a company originally comprised of 150 men, only eighty returned after a heavy attack on the last day.
Paul describes his fellow soldiers: he, Leer, Müller, and Kropp are all nineteen years old. They are from the same class in school, and each enlisted in the army voluntarily. Tjaden, a locksmith, is a voracious eater but remains thin as a rail, making Paul wonder where all the food goes to on his skinny frame. Haie Westhus, also nineteen, is a peat-digger with a body as large and powerful as Tjaden’s is thin. Detering is a peasant with a wife at home. Katczinsky, the unofficial leader of Paul’s small group of comrades, is a cunning older man of about forty years.
After a sound night’s sleep, the men line up for breakfast. The cook has unwittingly made enough food for 150 men. The men are anxious to eat the rations designated for their fallen comrades, but the cook insists that he is only allowed to distribute single rations and that the dead soldiers’ rations will simply have to go to waste. After a heated argument, however, he agrees to distribute all of the food.
Paul remembers that he and his friends were embarrassed to use the general latrines when they were recruits. Now they find them a luxury. Every soldier is intimately acquainted with his stomach and intestines. The men settle down to rest, smoke, and play cards in order to forget about their narrow survival during their last trip to the front. Kemmerich, one of Paul’s classmates and a member of the Second Company, is in the hospital with a thigh wound.
Paul recalls his schoolmaster, Kantorek, a fiercely patriotic man who persuaded many of Paul’s friends to enlist as volunteers to prove their patriotism. Joseph Behm, one such young man, was hesitant but eventually gave in to Kantorek’s unrelenting pressure. He was one of the first to die, and his death was particularly horrible. With Behm’s death, Paul and his classmates lost their innocent trust in authority figures such as Kantorek. Kantorek writes a letter to them filled with the empty phrases of patriotic fervor, calling them “Iron Youth” and glorifying their heroism. The men reflect that they once idolized Kantorek but now despise him; they blame him for pushing them into the army and exposing them to the horror of war.
The men go to see Kemmerich, who is unaware that his leg has been amputated. Paul discerns from his sallow skin that Kemmerich will not live long. The men give some cigarettes to an orderly in return for his agreement to give Kemmerich a dose of morphine to ease his pain. Müller, reasoning that a one-legged man has no need for matching shoes, wants Kemmerich’s boots for himself, but Paul discourages him from pressing the matter further. They will have to keep watch until Kemmerich dies and then take the boots before the orderlies steal them.
The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.
Paul recalls his life before the war. As a young student, he used to write poetry. Now, he feels empty and cynical, thinking that his short time as a soldier has taught him more hard lessons about life than a decade at school could. He has no interest in, or time for, poetry, and his parents now seem to him a hazy and unreliable memory. He feels that “only facts are real and important to us.”
Paul ruminates that he and the other young men of his generation were cut off from life just as they had begun to live it. The older soldiers have jobs and families to which they can return after the war, but the younger men have nothing; the war has become their entire lives. Whereas the older men will forget the trenches and the death, the young men have nothing definite on which to focus thoughts of the future. Their prewar lives are vague, unreal dreams with no relevance to the world that has been created by the war. Paul feels utterly cut off from humanity; his only feelings of love and loyalty are those that he shares with his friends and fellow soldiers. As a result, Paul tries to see them in the best possible light. He thinks about Müller’s attempt to persuade the dying Kemmerich to give him his boots and tries to convince himself that Müller was being reasonable rather than inconsiderate.
During training, Paul and his classmates were taught that patriotism requires suppressing individuality and personality, a sacrifice that civilians do not require of even the lowest class of servants. Corporal Himmelstoss, formerly a postman, trained Paul’s platoon. He was a small, petty man who relentlessly humiliated his recruits, especially Paul, Tjaden, Haie, and Kropp. Eventually, Paul and the others learned to stand up to Himmelstoss’s authority without outright defiance. Paul and his friends detested Himmelstoss, but now Paul knows that the humiliation and the arbitrary discipline toughened them and probably helped them to survive as long as they have. He believes that had Himmelstoss not hardened the men, their experiences on the front lines would have driven them insane.
Kemmerich is very near death. He is saddened by the fact that he will never become a head forester, as he had hoped. Paul attends Kemmerich’s death throes. He lies next to his friend to try to comfort him, assuring him that he will get well and return home. Kemmerich knows that his leg is gone, and Paul tries to cheer him with talk about the advances in the construction of artificial limbs. Kemmerich tells Paul to give his boots to Müller. Kemmerich begins to cry silently and refuses to respond to Paul’s attempts at conversation. Paul goes to find the doctor, who refuses to come. When Paul returns to Kemmerich’s bedside, Kemmerich is already dead. His body is immediately taken from the bed to clear room for another wounded soldier. Paul takes Kemmerich’s boots to Müller.
A group of new recruits arrives to reinforce the decimated company, making Paul and his friends feel like grizzled veterans. More than twenty of the reinforcements for the Second Company are only about seventeen years old. Kat gives one of the new recruits some beans that he acquired by bribing the company’s cook. He warns the boy to bring tobacco next time as payment for the food. Kat’s ability to scrounge extra food and provisions amazes Paul. Kat is a cobbler by trade, but he has an uncanny knack for making the most of life on the front.
Kat believes that if every soldier got the same food and the same pay, the war would end quickly. Kropp proposes that the declaration of wars should be conducted like a festival. He thinks that the generals and national leaders should battle one another with clubs in an open arena—the country with the last survivor wins the war.
Paul and his friends remember the recruits’ barracks with longing now. Even Himmelstoss’s petty humiliations seem idyllic in comparison to the actual war. They muse that Himmelstoss must have been different as a postman and wonder why he is such a bully as a drill sergeant. Kropp mimics Himmelstoss and shouts, “Change at Löhne,” recalling a drill in which Himmelstoss forced them to practice changing trains at a railway station. Kat suggests that Himmelstoss is like a lot of other men. He remarks that even a dog trained to eat potatoes will snap at meat given the opportunity. Men behave the same way when given the opportunity to have a little authority. Every man is a beast underneath all his manners and customs. The army is based on one man having more power over another man. Kat believes the problem is that they have too much power. Civilians are not permitted to torment others the way men in the army torment one another. Tjaden arrives and excitedly reports that Himmelstoss is coming to the front. Paul explains that Tjaden holds a grudge against Himmelstoss. Tjaden is a bed wetter, and during training, Himmelstoss set out to break him of this habit, which he attributed to laziness. He found another bed wetter, Kindervater, and forced them to sleep in the same set of bunk beds. Every night, they traded places. The one on the bottom was drenched by the other’s urine during the night. The problem was not laziness but bad health, rendering Himmelstoss’s ploy ineffective. The man assigned to the bottom often slept on the floor and thus caught a cold.
Haie, Paul, Kropp, and Tjaden plotted their revenge upon Himmelstoss. They lay in wait for him one night on a dark road as he returned from his favorite pub. When he approached, they threw a bed cover over his head, and Haie punched him senseless. They stripped him of his pants and took turns lashing him with a whip, muffling his shouts with a pillow. They slipped away, and Himmelstoss never discovered who gave him the beating.
We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.
The Second Company is assigned to lay barbed wire at the front, an extremely dangerous task. As the men’s trucks rumble toward the front, they pass a house, and Paul hears the cackle of geese. He and Kat agree to come back later, take the geese, and feast on them. The sound of gunfire and shells fills the air, gripping the new recruits with fear. Kat explains to the recruits how to distinguish which guns are firing by listening to the blasts. He announces that he senses there will be a bombardment later in the night: the English batteries have begun firing an hour earlier than usual. Paul reflects that the roar of guns and whistling of shells sharpens men’s senses.
Paul ruminates that, for the soldier, the earth takes on a new significance at the front: he buries his body in it for shelter, and it receives him every time he throws himself down in a fold, furrow, or hollow. At the front, a man’s ancient animal instincts awaken. They are a saving grace for many men who obey them without hesitation. Often, a man drops to the ground just in time to avoid a shell that he did not even hear coming. On the front, men are transformed from soldiers into “human animals.”
The soldiers carry wire and iron rods to the front. After they lay the wire, they try to sleep until the trucks arrive to drive them back. Kat’s prediction that they would be bombarded is correct. Everyone scrambles for cover while the shells land around them. Paul attempts to place a terrified recruit’s helmet back on the recruit’s head, but the boy cowers under Paul’s arm. Paul places the helmet on the recruit’s behind to protect it from shell fragments. After the shelling lessens, the recruit comes to and notices with embarrassment that he has defecated in his pants. Paul explains that many soldiers experience this problem at first. He instructs the boy to remove his underpants and throw them away.
The men hear the wrenching sounds of wounded horses shrieking in agony. Detering is particularly horrified because he is a farmer and loves horses. After the wounded men are gathered, those in charge of shooting the wounded animals do their job. Detering declares with disgust that using horses in war is the “vilest baseness.”
As the trucks drive the men back, Kat becomes restless. A flurry of bombs then lands around them. The men take cover in a nearby graveyard. Paul crawls under an uncovered coffin for protection. Kat shakes him from behind to tell him to put his gas mask on. After he dons his mask, Paul helps a new recruit put his on. He then dives into a hole created by an exploding shell, reasoning that shells seldom hit the same place twice. Kat and Kropp join him. Paul takes a breath on the valve of the mask, hoping that the mask is airtight.
Later, Paul climbs out and sees a soldier not wearing his mask who appears to be okay. Paul tears his mask off and gulps fresh air. The shelling has stopped. Paul notices a recruit lying on the ground with his hip a mess of flesh and bone splinters at the joint. It is the recruit who defecated in his pants earlier. Kat and Paul know that he will not survive his wounds. Kat whispers that it would be merciful of them to end his life with a gunshot before the agony of his wound begins to torment him. Before they can end the recruit’s life, however, other soldiers begin to emerge from their holes.
Paul describes the unsanitary conditions of life at the front. Tjaden, tired of killing lice one by one, scrapes them off his skin into a boot-polish tin. He kills them by heating the tin with a flame. Haie’s lice have red crosses on their heads, and he jokes that he got them at a hospital where they attended the surgeon general.
Himmelstoss has arrived in the camp, proving the rumor true. He was caught tormenting his recruits excessively and has been sent to the front as punishment. Müller begins asking everyone what they would do if the war ended suddenly. Kropp says the war will not end, but Müller persists. Kat mentions his wife and children. The younger men mention women and getting drunk. Haie says that he would become a noncommissioned army officer since digging peat, his old job, is such a terrible occupation. Tjaden states that he would concentrate on getting revenge on Himmelstoss. Detering says that he would return to his farm.
Himmelstoss approaches the men, who rudely ignore him. He orders Tjaden to stand, but Tjaden moons him in response. Tjaden rushes off to hide before Himmelstoss returns with the authorities. Müller continues with his questions. They calculate that there are only twelve men left out of the twenty from their class who joined the army. Seven are dead, four are wounded, and one went insane. They mockingly recite questions that Kantorek shot at them in school. Paul cannot imagine what he will do after the war. Kropp concludes that the war has destroyed everything for them. They are not impetuous youths anymore but men perpetually on the run. They cannot believe in anything except the war.
Himmelstoss returns with the sergeant-major to punish Tjaden. Paul and the others refuse to tell him where Tjaden is hiding. The sergeant-major solves the problem by declaring that Tjaden must report to the Orderly Room within ten minutes. The men resolve to torment Himmelstoss at every opportunity. Himmelstoss returns later to demand that they tell him where Tjaden is. Kropp insults him, and Himmelstoss storms off.
Later that evening, Kropp and Tjaden are put on trial for insubordination. Paul and the others tell the court about Himmelstoss’s cruelty toward Tjaden during training. After hearing their story, the presiding lieutenant gives Tjaden and Kropp light punishments and lectures Himmelstoss about his behavior. Tjaden receives three days open arrest and Kropp receives one. Paul and the others visit them in the makeshift jail and play cards.
Kat and Paul bribe a driver of a munitions wagon with two cigarettes to take them back to the house where they heard the geese. Paul climbs over the fence and enters the shed to find two geese. He grabs both and slams their heads against the wall, hoping to avoid a commotion. The attempt fails, and the geese cackle and fight with him furiously before he manages to escape with one goose in hand. Kat kills it quickly, and they retreat to an unused lean-to to cook it, eating quickly for fear of their theft being discovered. They keep the feathers to make pillows. Paul feels an intimate closeness with Kat as they roast the goose. They eat their fill and take the rest to Tjaden and Kropp.
The Second Company returns to the front two days early. On their way, they pass a schoolhouse that has been shattered by shells. Fresh coffins are piled by the dozens already lying next to the schoolhouse. The soldiers make jokes to distance themselves from the unpleasant knowledge that the coffins have been made for them. At the front, they listen to the enemy transports and guns. They detect that the enemy is bringing troops to the front, and they can hear that the English have strengthened their artillery. The men are disheartened by this knowledge as well as by the fact that their own shells are beginning to fall in their trenches—the barrels on the guns are worn out.
The soldiers can do nothing but wait. Chance determines whether things will take a turn for the better or for the worse. Paul relates that he once left a dugout to visit friends in a different dugout. When he returned to the first, it had been completely demolished by a direct hit. He returned to the second only to discover that it had been buried.
The soldiers have to fight the fat, aggressive rats to protect their food. Large rations of cheese and rum are doled out to the men, and every man receives numerous grenades and ample ammunition. The men remove saw blades from their bayonets because the enemy instantly kills anyone caught with this kind of blade on his bayonet. Kat is in bad spirits, which Paul takes as a bad sign, since Kat has an uncanny sense for knowing what will happen on the front.
Days pass before the bombs begin to fall. No attack comes right away, but the bombing continues. Attempts to deliver food to the dugouts fail. Even Kat fails to scrounge anything up. The men settle down to wait. Eventually, a new recruit cracks and attempts to leave. Kat and Paul have to beat him into submission. Later, the dugout suffers a direct hit. Luckily, the shell is a light one, and the concrete holds up against it. Three recruits crack, and one actually escapes the dugout. Before Paul can retrieve him, a shell whistles through the air and smashes the escaped recruit to bits. They have to bind another recruit to subdue him. Everyone else tries to play cards, but no one can concentrate on the game.
Finally, the shelling lessens. The attack has come. Paul and his comrades throw grenades out of the dugout before jumping out. The French attackers suffer heavy losses from the German machine guns and grenades. The soldiers kill with a mindless fury after days of waiting helplessly in the dark while the bombs fell above them. The Germans repel the attack and reach the enemy lines. They wreak havoc and destruction before grabbing all of the provisions they can carry. They run back to their position to rest for an hour. They devour the tins of food they have gathered, noting that the enemy has far better provisions than they do.
Later, Paul stands watch. Memories of the past come to him. The calm and quiet memories bring sorrow rather than desire. He muses that desires “belong to another world that is gone from us.” He is sure that his youth is lost and that he has become permanently numb and indifferent.
Days pass while dead men accumulate on both sides. Paul and his comrades listen to one man’s death throes for three days. They are unable to locate him despite their best efforts. The new recruits figure heavily in the dead and wounded; these reinforcements have had little training, and they drop like flies on the front.
During an attack, Paul finds Himmelstoss in a dugout, pretending to be wounded. Paul tries to force him out with blows and threats, but Himmelstoss does not give in until a nearby lieutenant orders both of them to proceed. They rush forward with the attack. The old hands try to teach some of the new recruits combat tricks and wisdom during the hours of rest, but the recruits do everything wrong when the fighting begins again. Haie receives a fatal wound. When the Second Company is relieved, only thirty-two of the original 150 men remain.
We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which . . . would be out of place here.
The Second Company is sent to a depot for reorganization. Himmelstoss tries to make amends with the men after having experienced the horror of the front. He becomes generous with food and gets easy jobs for them; he even wins Tjaden over to his side. Good food and rest are enough to make a soldier content. Away from the trenches, Paul and his comrades make vulgar jokes as usual. Over time, their humorous jests become more bitter.
Paul, Leer, and Kropp meet three women while they are swimming. They communicate with them in broken French, indicating that they have food. They are forbidden to cross the canal, just as the women are. Later that night, the men gather some food and swim across, wearing nothing more than their boots. The women throw them clothing. Despite the language barrier, they chatter endlessly. They call the soldiers “poor boys.” Paul is inexperienced, but he yields to desire. He hopes to recapture a piece of his innocence and youth with a woman who does not belong to the army brothels.
Paul receives seventeen days of leave. Afterward, he has to report to a training base, and will return to the front in six weeks. He wonders how many of his friends will survive six weeks. He visits one of the women on the other side of the canal, but she is not interested to hear about his leave. He realizes that she would find him more exciting if he were going to the front.
When Paul reaches his hometown, he finds that his mother is ill with cancer and that the civilian population is slowly starving. He cannot shake a feeling of “strangeness”; he no longer feels at home in his family’s house. His mother asks if it was “very bad out there.” Paul lies to her. He has no words to describe his experiences—at least no words that she would understand.
A major becomes angry that Paul does not salute him in the street. As a punishment, he forces Paul to do a march in the street and salute smartly. Paul wishes to avoid further such incidents, so he begins wearing civilian clothing. Paul’s father, unlike his mother, keeps asking him questions. He doesn’t understand that it is dangerous for Paul to put his experiences into words. Others who don’t ask questions take too much pride in their silence. Sometimes the screeching of the trams startles Paul because it sounds like shells. He sits in his bedroom with his books and pictures, trying to recapture his childhood feelings of youth and desire, but the memories are only shadows. His identity as a soldier is the only thing to which he can cling.
Paul learns from a fellow classmate, Mittelstaedt, now a training officer, that Kantorek has been conscripted into the war. When he met Kantorek, Mittelstaedt tells Paul, he flaunted his authority as a superior officer over their old schoolmaster. He bitterly reminded Kantorek that he coerced Joseph Behm into enlisting against the boy’s wishes—Joseph would have been called within three months anyway, and Mittelstaedt believes that Joseph died three months sooner than he would have otherwise. Mittelstaedt arranged to be placed in charge of Kantorek’s company and has taken every chance to humiliate him, miming Kantorek’s old admonitions as a schoolmaster.
Paul’s mother becomes sadder as the end of Paul’s leave looms closer. Paul visits Kemmerich’s mother to deliver the news of her son’s death. She demands to know how he died. Paul lies to her by telling her that he died quickly with little pain and suffering.
Paul’s mother sits with Paul in his bedroom the last night of his leave. He tries to pretend that he is asleep, but he notes that she is in great physical pain. He urges her to return to bed. He wishes that he could weep in her lap and die with her. He also wishes that he had never come home on leave because it only awakens pain for himself and his mother.
Paul reports to the training camp. Next to the camp is a prison for captured Russian soldiers, who are reduced to picking through the German soldiers’ garbage for food. Paul can hardly understand how they find anything in the garbage: food is so scarce that everything is eaten. When he looks at the Russian soldiers, Paul can scarcely believe that these men with “honest peasant faces” are the enemy. Nothing about them suggests that he is fundamentally different from them or that he should have any reason to want to kill them. Many of the Russians are slowly starving, and they are stricken with dysentery in large numbers. Their soft voices bring images of warm, cozy homes to Paul’s mind. But most people simply ignore the prisoners’ begging, and a few even kick them.
The spirit of brotherhood among the prisoners touches Paul deeply. They live in such miserable circumstances that there is no longer any reason for them to fight among themselves. Paul cannot relate to them as individual men because he knows nothing of their lives; he only sees the animal suffering in them. People he has never met, people in positions of influence and power, said the word that made these men his enemy. Because of other men, he and they are required to shoot, maim, imprison, and kill one another. Paul pushes these thoughts away because they threaten his ability to maintain his composure. He breaks all of his cigarettes in half and gives them to the prisoners. One of the prisoners learns that Paul plays the piano. The prisoner plays his violin next to the fence. The music sounds thin and lonely in the night air, and only makes Paul feel sadder.
Before Paul returns to the front, his sister and father visit him. Their time together is as uncomfortable as it had been at home during Paul’s leave, and they cannot find anything to talk about except his mother’s illness. The hours are an agony for them. Paul’s mother has been taken to the hospital to be treated for her cancer. His father says that he did not even dare to ask the hospital what the operation would cost because he feared that the doctors would not perform the surgery if he did.
Before they leave, Paul’s father and sister give Paul some jam and potato cakes that his mother made for him. Depressed, Paul has no appetite for them, and ponders whether to give them to the hungry Russian prisoners. He decides that he will, but then he remembers that his mother must have been in pain when she made the cakes and that she meant them for him. He compromises by giving the prisoners two of the cakes.
Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us. . . .
When Paul returns to the front, he finds Kat, Müller, Tjaden, and Kropp still alive and uninjured. He shares his potato cakes with them. There is excitement among the ranks: the kaiser, the emperor of Germany, is coming to see the army. In preparation for his visit, everything is cleaned thoroughly, and all the soldiers are given new clothes. But when the kaiser arrives, Paul and the others are disappointed to see that he is not a very remarkable man. After he leaves, the new clothes are taken away. Paul and his friends muse that if a certain thirty people in the world had said “no” to the war, it would not have happened. They conclude that wars are useful only for leaders who want to be in history books.
Paul volunteers to crawl into No Man’s Land to gather information about the enemy’s strength. On his way back, he becomes lost. A bombardment begins, and he knows that an attack is coming. He realizes that he must lie still and pretend to be dead, so he crawls into a shell hole to wait until the attack is over. An enemy soldier jumps into the shell hole with him, and Paul quickly stabs him. It is too light outside for Paul to make his way back, so he is forced to wait in the shell hole with the body. As he waits, he notices that the French soldier is not dead. Paul bandages the soldier’s wounds and gives him water. The man takes several hours to die. It is the first time that Paul has killed someone in hand-to-hand combat, and the experience is pure agony.
Paul talks to the dead soldier, explaining that he did not want to kill him. Paul finds a picture of a woman and a little girl in the man’s pocketbook. He reads what he can of the letters tucked inside. Every word plunges Paul deeper into guilt and pain. The dead man’s name is Gérard Duval, and he was a printer by trade. Paul copies his address and resolves to send money to his family anonymously. As dark falls again, Paul’s survival instinct reawakens. He knows that he will not fulfill his promise to the French soldier. He crawls back to his trench. Hours later, he confesses the experience of killing the printer to his comrades. Kat and Kropp draw his attention to their snipers enjoying the job of picking off enemy soldiers. They point out that he took no pleasure from his killing and, unlike the snipers, he had no choice; it was kill or be killed.
Paul, Tjaden, Müller, Kropp, Detering, and Kat have to guard a supply dump in an abandoned village. They use a concrete shelter for a dugout and take advantage of the opportunity to eat and sleep as much as they can. They take a large mahogany bed, mattresses, and blankets into their dugout because they rarely have access to such luxuries. They collect eggs and butter, and they have the luck to find two suckling pigs. They collect fresh vegetables and cook a grand dinner in a well-outfitted kitchen near the dugout. Paul makes pancakes while the others roast the pigs.
Unfortunately, the enemy sees the smoke rising from the chimney and bombs the house. As the attack begins, the men gather the food and make a dash for the dugout. Paul finishes cooking the pancakes while the bombs fall around him. Once he finishes, he grabs the plate of pancakes and manages to get to the dugout without losing a single one. The meal lasts four hours. Afterward, the men smoke cigars and cigarettes from the supply dump. They drink coffee and begin eating again before they end the night with cognac. They even feed a stray cat. The richness of the meal after such long deprivation causes them to suffer bouts of diarrhea all night.
For three weeks, the men live a “charmed life” before they are moved again. They take the bed, two armchairs, and the cat with them. While they are evacuating another village, Kropp and Paul are wounded by a falling shell. They find an ambulance wagon after struggling out of the zone of the shelling. Kropp has been wounded very close to his knee. He resolves to commit suicide if they amputate his leg. Paul’s leg is broken and his arm is wounded. He and Kropp travel to the hospital in the same train car after bribing a sergeant-major with cigars.
Kropp develops a fever and must stop at the Catholic hospital nearby. Paul fakes an illness to go with him. Kropp’s fever does not improve, so his leg has to be amputated from the thigh. Men die daily at the hospital. The amazing array of maiming wounds shows Paul that a hospital is the best place to learn what war is about. He wonders what will happen to his generation after the war.
Lewandowski, a forty-year-old soldier, is recuperating from a bad abdominal injury. He is excited that his wife is coming to visit him with the child she bore after he left to fight two years before. He wants to take his wife somewhere private, because he has not slept with her for two years. But before she arrives, he develops a fever, so he is confined to bed. When she arrives, she is nervous. Lewandowski explains what he wants, and she blushes furiously. The other patients tell her that social niceties can be dispensed with during wartime. Two men guard the door in case a doctor or one of the nuns arrives to check on a patient. Kropp holds the child and the other patients play cards and chat loudly with their backs to the couple while the couple makes love in Lewandowski’s bed. The plan is carried off without a problem. Lewandowski’s wife shares the food that she brought for her husband with the other patients.
Paul heals well. The hospital begins using paper bandages because the cloth ones have become scarce. Kropp’s leg heals, but he is more solemn and less talkative than he used to be. Paul thinks that Kropp would have killed himself if he were not in a room with other patients. Paul receives leave to go home and finish healing. When his time at home is done, parting from his mother is even harder than the last time. She is weaker than before.
The German army continues to weaken, but the war rages on. Paul and his comrades cease to count the weeks they have spent fighting. Paul compares war to a deadly disease like the flu, tuberculosis, or cancer. The men’s thoughts are molded by “the changes of the days”: when they are fighting, their thoughts go dead; when they are resting, their thoughts are good. Their prewar lives are “no longer valid” since the years before they joined the army have ceased to mean anything. Before, they were “coins of different provinces”; now, they are “melted down,” and they all “bear the same stamp.” They identify themselves as soldiers first, only second as individual men. They share an intimate, close bond with one another, like that of convicts sentenced to death. Survival requires their complete, unquestioning loyalty to one another.
Paul reflects that, for the soldiers, life is no more than the constant avoidance of death. They have to reduce themselves to the level of unthinking animals because instinct is their best weapon against unrelenting mortal danger. It helps them survive the horrendous conditions of trench warfare without losing their minds. However, the war wears them down despite themselves. Eventually, they begin to crack. Detering sees a cherry tree blossoming one day. He takes a branch from the tree with him, reminding himself of his orchard at home, which is full of cherry trees. He deserts the army a few days later. Foolishly, he tries to go back home instead of fleeing to Holland, and he is captured and tried as a deserter. The Second Company never hears from him again. An enemy shoots Müller point-blank in the abdomen. His agonizingly painful death lasts half an hour. Paul receives Müller’s boots, which once belonged to Kemmerich.
The war continues to go badly for the Germans. The quality of the soldiers’ food worsens, and there is considerably less food. Dysentery strikes them with a vengeance. The Germans’ weapons are worn and useless against the newer, more powerful artillery of their enemies. The new recruits are younger than ever before and have no training. Wounded men are sent back to fight before they are healed; even crippling physical defects do not save them from combat duty. Leer bleeds to death from a thigh wound. The summer of 1918 is horrific. Though they are obviously losing, the Germans keep fighting. Rumors of a possible end to the war make the soldiers more reluctant to return to the front lines.
Kat is wounded while returning with food that he has scavenged. Paul cannot leave him to find a stretcher because Kat is bleeding too much. Paul painstakingly carries him to the dressing station while shells crash around him. Kat is the only friend Paul has left in the army. When he reaches the station, still carrying Kat, he discovers that Kat has been hit in the head by a fragment from an exploding shell. Paul’s dearest friend is dead.
In the autumn of 1918, after the bloodiest summer in Paul’s wartime experience, Paul is the only living member of his original group of classmates. The war continues to rage, but now that the United States has joined the Allies, Germany’s defeat is inevitable, only a matter of time. In light of the extreme privations suffered by both the German soldiers and the German people, it seems likely that if the war does not end soon, the German people will revolt against their leaders.
After inhaling poison gas, Paul is given fourteen days of leave to recuperate. A wave of intense desire to return home seizes him, but he is frightened because he has no goals; were he to return home, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. He fears that his generation will yield no survivors—that they will return home as living corpses, shells of human beings. He cannot bear the thought. Something that is essentially human in them must survive the years of bombardment, but he feels that his own life has been irrevocably destroyed.
After years of fighting, Paul is finally killed in October of 1918, on an extraordinarily quiet, peaceful day. The army report that day contains only one phrase: “All quiet on the Western Front.” As Paul dies, his face is calm, “as though almost glad the end had come.”